The appointment of Ted Saskin as executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association is being challenged by a group of veteran players, and the escalating controversy threatens to divide the players just as they return to the ice after the cancellation of last season because of a lockout.
Saskin replaced Bob Goodenow, who resigned July 28 after a new collective bargaining agreement that ended the 310-day lockout was negotiated. That agreement was widely viewed as favoring the owners.
Saskin, in an attempt to restore harmony among the players and to secure his position, said Monday that he had asked the executive board and team player representatives to vote by secret ballot on his future.
"This association needs direction and guidance, which I am fully committed to providing for the players," Saskin said at a news conference.
That vote, however, may not run as smoothly or as quickly as Saskin would hope.
Several team player representatives have told the union that they do not plan to return their ballots for perhaps months in order to consider their options, according to Steve Shields, who is among the 37 members of the players union's executive board. He is a free-agent goalie attending training camp with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
"We just want to make sure this is all done legitimately," Shields said. "It's about getting the right guy for the right price."
The amount of Saskin's salary is among the contentious issues, with some players claiming that Saskin was improperly hired to a five-term contract worth US$2.13 million a year. Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings said that Trevor Linden, the union president who plays for Vancouver, improperly negotiated a severance package with Goodenow and the new contract with Saskin. Goodenow received a severance package of more than US$8 million, according to e-mail correspondence sent to The Toronto Star, which first reported the controversy this week.
The supplier of that e-mail message and others sent to and from Saskin did not want to be identified because he feared retribution, including legal action.
"What this boils down to is that Trevor, who isn't properly trained to negotiate contracts, took it upon himself to negotiate a package with Bob and a new contract for Ted," Chelios said in a telephone interview. "There was no consulting with player reps whatsoever."
The union did not deny the existence of the e-mail messages. Linden did not respond to e-mail messages seeking comment.
Saskin took over the position the day Goodenow resigned, which was six days after the union ratified the new collective-bargaining agreement. At the time, Saskin said that Linden first approached him about taking over only minutes after the ratification was announced.
Saskin has worked for the union since 1992, handling licensing and marketing contracts. The dispute over his hiring brings into focus the tensions that remain after the lockout.
Chelios and Tie Domi of the Maple Leafs are among those who have said in interviews that Saskin should be fired and that the union should then form a search committee to consider other candidates.
Some dissident players noted that in 1990, the players union hired the accounting firm Price Waterhouse to conduct a search that led to Goodenow's hiring.
In an e-mail message obtained by The Star that was sent Sept. 5 to Saskin by Trent Klatt, a veteran player who retired this week, the battle at the union's office in Toronto is highlighted.